Intrigue and Terror in Budapest
We finally have Hungarian director László Nemes’ long-awaited follow-up to his Oscar-winning “Son of Saul”. “Sunset” takes us into a Middle European heart of darkness and a fever dream. Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) is the first-person protagonist of the film, arriving in Budapest from Trieste and looking for work in a posh hat shop which was once owned by her now-deceased parents. The new owner, Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov), is not happy to have her at the shop but will ultimately relent to Irisz’s immediate dissatisfaction.
We understand that Irisz is looking for her long-lost brother. She’ll find him but again not be to her liking. It is as if she is in dogged pursuit of things she doesn’t want to catch. Unfortunately, Jakab gives a mono-expression performance to a one-dimensional character who seems nothing more than an excuse to take the camera somewhere else.
However, Budapest looks amazing and Nemes gives us a full view, with crowds of people, trams and coaches. There is a sense of life brimming and of history happening, violently and darkly, perhaps just out of sight. As Irisz’s quests continue, she becomes involved in various adventures: an uprising of anarchists; an attack from coachman Gáspár (Levente Molnár). She witnesses a half-mad countess being brutalized by a sadistic young man from Vienna. Hot air balloons are launched and a huge tent is being put up.
The shop has something going on, perhaps being a front for high-end prostitution (something Irisz immediately wants to investigate by getting chosen to be the girl that ‘delivers the hat’). We always sense a creeping dread that danger is about to breakthrough the frankly flimsy veneer of Hungarian civilization. A final baffling shot suggests everything was all some kind of allegory but it is very hard to remember what is what.
This is a very mysterious and even bizarre film in many ways; it is an occult mystery drama about the fin-de-siècle anxieties of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It takes place in Budapest in 1913, with a distinctly disturbing coda in the wartime trenches, a setting that is itself ambiguously real or imagined. All the fears and premonitions of war and the overturning of an old order are projected on the hat store in the city.
Irisz’ parents died in a fire at the store after which it was rebuilt and re-established as a lucrative concern, keeping the brand name of Leiter by a businessman Brill. The catastrophe that killed her mother and father happened when she was two, after which she was placed with a family in Vienna, where she has been working with a milliner. But now she has returned, on a mission to find the truth about her brother, whose existence in Budapest is a shadowy and. He is thought to have caused the fire himself, to have made an attempt on the life of Brill and murdered a certain count whose wealthy but disturbed and drug-addicted widow now hosts fashionable musical soirees for the elite.
Gaspar knows where Irisz’s brother may be found: he is now involved with a criminal gang of robbers who have what could be anarcho-nationalist or separatist leanings, resenting the haughty German-speaking royalty from Vienna. And the awful truth is that Brill continues to cultivate a special relationship with this alien ruling class. It is not simply that the royals are the most prestigious hat-buying customers; Brill keeps beautiful young women as his milliners, the most favored of whom will be selected as an employee of the royals, perhaps as a kind of lady-in-waiting, although the drama suggests something more sordid.
The camera moves through the city and through the drama as if in a dream. There is no traditional structure and variation of pace that might accompany a conventional drama someone progressively discovering the truth.
The film is a sumptuous period piece where horrors exist around every corner. It won’t take long before audiences guess where Írisz’s path is leading. The question, as ever with these kinds of things, is: just how far she will go. The real mystery, I think, is what Irisz is a symbol of. There are many ambiguities, almost to the point of damaging its basic cogency yet however disorientated I became while watching the film, I did not become frustrated. I did, however, begin to backtrack and second-guess myself just a little, which somewhat diminished the experience but I do plan to see the film again.